No one disputes that Haiti needed help. Left unsaid was the implicit assumption that one certainly couldn’t trust Haitians to help themselves. Aid groups warned potential donors, “Do Not Give To The Haitian Government: Haiti is known to be a corrupt country;” media organizations announced that “the chief culprit of current or past suffering in Haiti” was “intense corruption.” It wouldn’t surprise me if some observers secretly believed the Préval regime had engineered the earthquake in order to steal billions from the international community.
Though rooted in reality—corruption is more overt in Haiti than in more sophisticated countries—Katz argues convincingly that this perception was ridiculously overblown. Though he by no means paints a flattering portrait of the hapless, stubborn Préval, he criticizes those who automatically assumed the Préval government was as venal as its predecessors. This was pretty much everybody. The corruption that pervaded the notorious Duvalier and Aristide regimes was assumed to be endemic to Haiti and Haitians, and relief operations were determined to keep their funds out of the Haitian government’s reach, no matter who was in charge.
The result? Donated money went directly to NGOs and organizations that were often fundamentally incapable of putting that money to its proper use. Millions of dollars in tens and twenties flowed to the American Red Cross, for instance, which was neither able nor eager to spearhead a comprehensive, long-term redevelopment effort; other aid organizations used the donations for salaries, capacity-building, and other non-earthquake-related matters. Katz estimates that of the $2.43 billion spent on ostensible humanitarian relief by the end of 2010, a mere 7 percent actually made its way to Haiti.
NGOs and relief operations were disorganized and frantic; the aid they rendered was haphazard and often useless. (“To force food out while maintaining distance from crowds,” Katz writes, “the US Navy threw boxes of bottled water and rations from hovering helicopters until other responders complained that this method was itself causing panic.”) They based their priorities on things the media had reported, few of which were true: that Haitians were in danger of immediate starvation, for instance, or that the country was on the verge of riot.
Katz makes clear that direct aid to the Préval government was just as important to Haiti’s long-term future as were immediate donations of relief materials. Direct aid, he argues, would’ve helped strengthen an infrastructure that had been crippled by decades of political instability and helped lead to a sustainable recovery. But few donors were interested. Katz describes how, in the days preceding Bill Clinton’s conference, Préval made the rounds in Washington, explaining why the Haitian government—and, by extension, the Haitian people—would benefit from direct financial support. “At every stop, the president explained the need to build strong, well-funded institutions,” writes Katz. “At every stop, he was turned down.”
Throughout, Katz questions the wisdom of entrusting the reconstruction to people who didn’t live in Haiti, weren’t personally affected by the earthquake, and would be on the first plane out when telegenic tragedy struck elsewhere. There’s a telling chapter set at the March 2010 donor conference, where Préval sat through a series of speeches that only served to underscore how little control he would have over the rebuilding of his own country. The donors had their own ideas of how to “build back better,” epitomized by the words of Brad Horwitz, an American whose company owned one of Haiti’s largest cell-phone networks: “We need Haiti open for business.”